Anne Of Cleves: Henry VIII's Fourth Wife

Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves, his third wife to establish an alliance of Protestant states. Their marriage, never consummated, was annulled after only a few months.

Henry VIII's beloved third wife, Jane Seymour, died in 1537, soon after giving birth to his only male heir, Prince Edward. In 1539, the Catholic powers of France and Spain, long rivals and even enemies of England, seemed certain to establish an alliance with the intention of attacking England. Feeling threatened by that possibility, King Henry allowed his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, to arrange a marriage for him with Anne of Cleves, whose brother, Duke William of Cleves, was the leader of the Protestant states in western Germany. In addition to the political expediency of this match, Henry was still hoping to father more sons, since his only male heir was a delicate child of three. And because of complications arising from Henry's various marriages, Prince Edward was also his only "legitimate" heir.

Hans Holbein, well instructed by Cromwell, painted a flattering portrait of the young woman, and Henry was soon looking forward with some eagerness to meeting his new bride. On New Year's Day, 1540, Henry paid a surprise visit to his betrothed, who had disembarked on English soil just six days earlier. Unfortunately, all of the reports of her attractiveness, as well as the painting by Holbein, had raised Henry's expectations. When he first laid eyes on his wife-to-be, he was very disappointed, though perhaps he would have been less so if his expectations had not been raised so high.

In fact, there are enough objective reports praising Anne--her modesty and her pleasant personality as well as her looks""to make it unlikely that she was as unattractive as Henry declared her to be. Probably she was just not his type, and his disappointment was exacerbated by the fact that she lacked all the sophistication and glamour that marked a woman as attractive in the English court at that time. Anne Boleyn, who was not considered particularly pretty, was nevertheless irresistible in her youth to many men, Henry included, because of her vivacity, her accomplishments, and her French manners.

Anne of Cleves had been raised under very different circumstances. Her family was not wealthy, and no dowry was provided for her. She had been taught to hide her charms rather than to flaunt them. And she had no knowledge of music, dancing, cards, fashion, or any other of Henry's favorite pastimes or interests, for at her father's court these things were considered frivolous, if not sinful. Furthermore, Anne could not speak English, and she had never learned French or Latin, either. She could read and write in her own language""but that was a language the learned king of England did not speak and had no desire to master.

Except for Henry himself, those who met Anne found her sweet and charming in a quiet sort of way. The people of England received her with affection, and even though her marriage to Henry was annulled after only six months, she remained popular with the English people. She and Henry's daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, got on very well, and in fact Mary became her close friend and converted Anne to Catholicism.

But Henry insisted that she displeased him, and that she had a "repulsive" odor (which no one else seems ever to have noticed). He never consummated their marriage, which made it that much easier to justify an annulment when he decided to press for one. The alliance between France and England had not come to pass after all, so the primary motivation for the German marriage no longer existed. Meanwhile, Henry had developed an interest in another young woman, Anne Boleyn's fifteen-year-old cousin Catherine Howard, and he was determined to be rid of his German wife so that he could wed Catherine.

Unlike Catherine of Aragon, Anne was more than willing to be free of her sometimes terrifying husband, particularly as nothing she did seemed to please him. She cooperated fully in the annulment proceedings, and was rewarded with a large income and two fine estates, though only for as long as she remained in England. But Anne was happy in England""at least, she was happy once she was no longer King Henry's wife""and so she was quite content to stay there. She continued her friendship with Henry's daughter Mary, who was her own age, and also took his younger daughter Elizabeth under her wing. Even after the annulment, the Lady Elizabeth would continue to visit her former stepmother at Richmond.

Although Anne occasionally visited the court, where she was always well received, she lived out the rest of her life as a private person. As a woman of means, she had the freedom to do as she pleased, and because she never remarried, she never again had a man""father, brother, or husband""whose orders she had to obey. She died in 1557, at the age of forty-two, after what appears to have been a very contented life.

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